Joe DiMaggio: The end of the streak

Seventy summers ago, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games. This is the story of the 57th

July 14, 1941: Joe DiMaggio hits in his 53rd straight game, against the Chicago White Sox; his record streak lasted only three more games.
(Image credit: Corbis)

THE FANS ARRIVED early, herding together outside Cleveland’s vast Municipal Stadium, spilling in a great throng onto Lakeside Drive. The weather had broken clear, and a mild evening breeze blew off Lake Erie. By the time the Yankees took batting practice, fans had crowded into the double-decker grandstand and the outfield bleachers. Down in the infield seats there was scarcely room to move in the aisles.

A few had come to see Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak stopped by their Indians, but many wanted to see it continue. And some people, like Cleveland’s ace pitcher Bob Feller, felt both things at once. He couldn’t quite bring himself to root for DiMaggio to get a hit against his team, but at the same time, as he sat in the dugout looking out at the great, soughing crowd, Feller found himself thinking, “I’d sure like to get a crack at stopping that streak tomorrow. I’d like to be the one on the mound.”

What pitcher wouldn’t? The Yankee Clipper, as DiMaggio was known, had hit successfully in 56 straight games, a feat unequalled before or since in modern baseball. For two months in the tense summer of 1941, as the Nazis marched relentlessly through Europe and hundreds of thousands of young men were drafted, America was captivated by DiMaggio’s streak. Great crowds came out to see the Yankees, and there was excitement each time DiMaggio stepped up to bat. Whoever finally shut him down would be known forever as the pitcher who stopped Superman. The Indians’ Al Smith, tonight’s starter, was skinny and left-handed, and threw a lot of soft stuff. He rarely appeared excited. His teammates called him Silent Al.

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“GROUND’S STILL WET,” DiMaggio thought as he took his batting stance in the top of the first inning. “Might be a slog to first base.” Rain had fallen earlier in the day, and he could feel the mud sticking to his spikes. The Yankees already led 1–0. With one out, Tommy Henrich stood on second base. Smith started DiMaggio with a fastball, missing high and away.

At third base, Ken Keltner shifted his weight, rubbed the palm of his glove, reassumed his crouch. He approached the art of fielding assiduously, positioning himself carefully and differently for each batter. Against DiMaggio he played very deep and near the foul line. “I would rather have him sneak a single through the hole than put a double past me,” Keltner reasoned.

Smith’s second pitch was a curveball that broke to the inside corner of the plate. DiMaggio lashed at it, pulling the ball hard and on the ground down that third-base line. It zipped fair past the bag, then into foul territory. Keltner backhanded the ball, straightened his body, and threw a pellet to first baseman Oscar Grimes. DiMaggio, on a close play, was out.

Cheers erupted from the stands—“Did you see that play?” “Best third baseman in the league, I tell you!” “Woulda been a double.” When the half-inning ended, applause thundered down again on Keltner as he trotted off the field.

In the top of the fourth, the score was still 1–0. Smith had run the count to 3 and 2 on DiMaggio. Smith relied on his curveball, changeup, middling fastball, and a screwball that could fool you. What he really had going for him was the element of surprise. He would use any of his pitches at any time. He threw a full-count changeup, and DiMaggio fouled it into the stands. Still 3 and 2. “Hang back on this guy,” DiMaggio said to himself. “You can always adjust to that fastball.” The curveball that followed bent too far inside; DiMaggio restrained himself and did not swing. Ball four. Boos rained out of the crowd. Walking a hitter on a streak like this, even unintentionally, was rotten play. DiMaggio was now hitless in two times at the plate.

Swiftly, the game moved along. The grandstand shook when the Indians’ Gee Walker tied the game at 1–1 with an inside-the-park home run in the bottom of the fourth inning. A mist, floating in off the lake, mixed with the cigarette smoke that wafted from the stands, blurring the arc lights together. Smith was handling the Yankees fairly easily, and Lefty Gomez, on the hill for the Yanks, had his stuff, too.

Top of the seventh, one out and no one on base. Score still tied at 1–1. “I’m going up swinging this time,” DiMaggio thought. The Cleveland crowd had swung DiMaggio’s way for this at bat, rooting for him to get a single and then to stay stranded at first. It was time to get what they had paid for, to witness the Great Man perform.

Smith’s first-pitch curveball arrived waist-high and again bent inside. DiMaggio swung and the ball whipped down the third-base line. Again, Keltner backhanded it—“No one goes to his right better than this guy,” Feller thought—stood, and threw across his body and across the diamond to get DiMaggio, by a stride. “That’s twice,” DiMaggio thought, jogging back to the bench. “Keltner has my number.” The next batter, Joe Gordon, homered to give the Yankees a 2–1 lead.

AND NOW IT was the eighth inning, and Smith was tiring badly. The Yankees, on a long rally, had lengthened their lead to 4–1. Smith walked Henrich to load the bases with one out, bringing up DiMaggio. Cleveland manager Roger Peckinpaugh came out of the dugout. He waved for the tall right-hander Jim Bagby Jr. to come in from the bullpen.

DiMaggio knelt on his right knee in front of the Yankees’ dugout and watched Bagby warm up. Bagby’s father had also pitched in the majors, and in 1920 he had won 31 games for the Indians. Junior, though, had done nothing close to that; he had less than a .500 record over four so-so seasons. He threw a decent fastball, though, especially compared with Al Smith’s, and he liked to keep it down.

In the on-deck circle, DiMaggio rose and swung his two bats a few times and then tossed one away. The bases were loaded in the eighth, and this would almost certainly be his final turn at bat. In such moments, in the still center of a roiling, noisy crowd, DiMaggio’s wide unflinching stance appeared especially calm, even ceremonial. Bagby reared back and threw a fastball an inch or two outside for a ball. The next pitch was another fastball, inside this time, that DiMaggio fouled off. Then came a curveball that broke wide. Two and one.

Now it was the fastball again, this one at the knees. DiMaggio swung and caught the top half of the ball, sending it on the ground right to Lou Boudreau, at shortstop. Just before reaching Boudreau, the ball struck something in the grass and leapt upward; Boudreau raised his glove to catch it at shoulder height, using his bare hand to help. He shuffled the ball to second baseman Ray Mack, who threw it to Grimes at first. The double play was complete and the eighth inning was over.

FROM THE DUGOUT, manager Joe McCarthy and the rest of the Yankees watched DiMaggio. As the Cleveland crowd cheered loudly and the Indians came bouncing off of the field, everyone looked to see what DiMaggio would do. The streak was surely finished. Yet he did only what he would have done at any other time. After crossing the first base bag, DiMaggio slowed from his sprint, then turned to his left and continued running out toward shallow centerfield, where he bent and, still moving, plucked his glove off the grass. He did not kick the earth or shake his head or pound his fist into the saddle of his glove. He did not behave as if he were aware of the volume and frenzy of the crowd. He did not look directly at anyone or anything.

For the rest of the game, in the dugout, DiMaggio remained by himself, an invisible cone around him. Then, in the bottom of the ninth inning, Indians hitters singled twice off Gomez, and the starter left the game. With Johnny Murphy in to pitch for the Yankees, pinch hitter Larry Rosenthal tripled. The Yankees still led 4–3, with nobody out, but if one of the next three Cleveland hitters could knock in Rosenthal, the game might go into extra innings. DiMaggio might get another chance. But a ground ball to Johnny Sturm at first base kept Rosenthal on third for the first out. The next batter, Soup Campbell, chopped one back to Murphy, who caught Rosenthal off the base and trapped him in a rundown. Out No. 2. Roy Weatherly’s groundout, also straight to Sturm, ended the game.

DiMaggio ran in briskly to the dugout and clacked up the runway to the clubhouse. Although the Yankees had won a tight and important game and had all but put a lock on the pennant, the locker room remained hushed. DiMaggio took off his cap and tossed his glove into his locker. The other players all made like they were attending to something important at their own stalls. Not even Gomez, high on his sixth straight win, had anything to say. Through the walls you could hear and feel the rumble of the fans. DiMaggio sat on his stool, silent.

“Well,” he said finally, “that’s over.”

It happened again, then, the towels thrown his way and the gloves tossed jauntily in the air and the guys gathering close and happy around him. “Tough luck, Daig, thought you had one past Keltner.”

“Suppose it had to end sometime,” DiMaggio said. Manager McCarthy threw an arm around him. “You’ll start another one tomorrow,” he said. For the photographers, Joe posed with his thumbs and forefingers held up in circles—zeros symbolic of his hitless night.

The news spread over the radio, and the next day across the country, the end-of-the-streak headlines would run above all else. A cartoon showed Smith and Bagby as submarines in the high seas, firing away at, and sinking, the Yankee Clipper.

GRADUALLY THE YANKEES clubhouse began to clear out. DiMaggio, though, was slow to move. He sat on his stool in his uniform and smoked a couple of cigarettes. The room had grown quiet again, and the Indians’ clubhouse boy, an Italian kid named Frank, kept his eyes on DiMaggio. “Scooter, stick around for me, will you?” DiMaggio said to his teammate Phil Rizzuto.

FINALLY DIMAGGIO HAD buttoned his white shirt and clipped his suspenders and snapped straight the sleeves of his suit. The two players nodded goodbye to Frank, and then, more than two hours after the final play of the game, DiMaggio and Rizzuto stepped out into the night. The crowd had by now given up and gone home. There was no one hanging around to pester Joe. In silence DiMaggio and Rizzuto began to walk, through the moist night air, beneath the lampposts, and up the hill toward the Hotel Cleveland.

In the weeks and months and years that followed, DiMaggio would think back on the time of the streak—just as so many others in so many places would recall that hot strange summer before the war and would tell their children and their children’s children about what DiMaggio had done; and just as the record keepers would log the hitting streak above all others year after year after year, and all through the decades of DiMaggio’s life—and he would know that in that time he had burst the bounds of the game, and that he had done something that would live with him always, exalting. Something crowning and indelible. 56.

From the book 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports by Kostya Kennedy. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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